Black Caucus Defends Seniority System as Members Try to Buck the Trend

Nov 13, 2014
In The News

The Congressional Black Caucus is fighting back against new suggestions — particularly coming from the very top of House Democratic leadership ranks — that seniority ought not be the be-all-end-all when it comes to doling out plum committee leadership assignments.

Spearheaded by outgoing Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, the CBC sent out a “dear colleague” email Thursday night to reiterate its support for seniority “as the primary determinant in the committee leadership selection process.”

Under the current system, the CBC would be represented at the top of seven House committees — a record CBC members contend was only possible because seniority prevents black lawmakers from being passed over, intentionally or otherwise.

Fudge’s email comes as the conference weighs a ranking-member race on Energy and Commerce between the more-senior Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Anna G. Eshoo of California.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has endorsed her close friend Eshoo multiple times over the past 10 months, on Monday going so far as to send out a letter of her own, calling seniority “a consideration” but “not a determination.”

The real test for the CBC, however, could be if one of its own members, Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida, loses the ranking member spot on Veterans’ Affairs to the least-senior member of the panel, Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota.

“The Congressional Black Caucus feels very strongly that Congresswoman Corrine Brown is entitled to be the ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, who is poised to be the CBC chairman in the 114th Congress, told CQ Roll Call Thursday evening. “If by chance Mr. Walz were to gather enough votes to defeat Ms. Brown, it is my personal opinion that it will cause divisions within the Democratic caucus that will take years to overcome.”

Walz is the highest-ranking enlisted servicemember serving in Congress currently, and he has support from veterans’ services organizations that are eager to work with one of their own. But Walz is battling not just against the seniority system, but also the fact that he is only serving on the committee via a waiver from leadership.

“Twenty-three years on the committee, I wasn’t just there. I’ve been instrumental in making things happen for veterans,” Brown said earlier on Thursday. “I don’t think [seniority] should count for everything, but it is an important factor, and [Walz] is not even on the committee — waivered — has never been his first choice. It has always been one of my first choices.”

In a separate interview, Walz told CQ Roll Call he was heartened by recent conversations about seniority that could benefit his own bid for the ranking member slot.

“I think the leader summed it up just right: Seniority is certainly a consideration; it’s not the only one,” he said.

Though Walz said he could not speak to Brown’s qualifications, he said it’s clear that he has the better credentials: “I just think that with the Veterans Administration in a time of crisis, I think being the only veteran on the committee in the first place sends a pretty strong message, and I think those veterans’ groups in the coming days will be speaking out and I think they will clarify that.”

Walz said he had been approaching CBC members and was aware he was facing opposition not only from them, but from Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland as well.